11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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When Europe's First Female Orchestra Conductor Foiled the Nazis While Defying Gender Expectations

Frieda Belinfante (left) and Henriëtte Hilda Bosmans, her then-partner.
Frieda Belinfante (left) and Henriëtte Hilda Bosmans, her then-partner.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Frieda Belinfante was a child, she was teased for her small hands—but no one who mocked her could ever have imagined what she would achieve with them. Before her life was over, Belinfante would use her hands to master instruments, conduct orchestras, and undermine the Nazis.

A Dream Disrupted

Music was important to the Belinfante family—in fact, it was the reason the family existed: Frieda's Jewish father, Aron Belinfante, had met her Christian mother, Georgine Antoinette Hesse, when he gave her piano lessons. Frieda, the third of their four children, started learning cello from her dad when she was 9 or 10 years old.

“He was a very good pianist,” Belinfante said of her father [PDF], but “he was a very bad teacher.” She even said he “didn’t know anything about strings!” After her father died when she was 17, Belinfante continued her musical education with others. She quickly realized she wasn’t destined to be part of the orchestra—she was meant to lead it.

In 1937, Belinfante accomplished a musical milestone: She became Europe’s first professional female orchestra conductor, leading the Het Klein Orkest chamber orchestra. But her success was short-lived. Just three years later, Germany invaded the Netherlands. Performances were no longer possible during World War II, especially considering her orchestra was composed of Jews and non-Jews playing together.

After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Belinfante—though she was half-Jewish herself—stayed in the country and became a Resistance activist, making forged identity documents for fleeing Jews. She disguised herself as a man to hide from the Nazis. She once even passed her own mother on the street, who failed to recognize her. “I really looked pretty good,” Belinfante later said of her handsome camouflage.

Belinfante was a member of the CKC, a small group of mostly LGBTQ activists in the Dutch Resistance. As an out lesbian herself, she fit right in. In 1943, the CKC bombed a records office, destroying hundreds of documents showing where Jews lived so that the Nazis couldn’t find them.

Later in the war, after many in the CKC had been captured and executed, Belinfante escaped the Netherlands. She and a Jewish man named Tony traveled by foot across four countries in deep snow from December 1944 to February 1945, traversing the freezing Alps with no jacket. They hiked from 9 a.m. every morning to 10 p.m. every night. When Tony told Belinfante he was exhausted, she replied: “There is no stopping in the snow. We have to walk until we stop somewhere in Switzerland.” Once, they had to strip naked to wade through a river of icy water that came up to their necks, bundling their clothes over their heads so they’d remain dry. A Swiss doctor later told her that the journey was so strenuous, she could have lost her legs if she had gone on much longer [PDF].

Upon crossing the border, Belinfante and Tony were arrested and interrogated by the Swiss. She answered truthfully that her companion was not her husband, but she didn’t know the gravity behind this statement. Because so many people were fleeing to Switzerland, the government had begun limiting immigration by no longer accepting single men as refugees. Belinfante’s answer sent Tony back to the Netherlands, where he was killed. That knowledge haunted her to the end of her life, but she did go on to find moments of joy.

Coming Alive Again

While in the Swiss refugee camp, Belinfante got ahold of a cello, even performing a concert with a visiting couple that had a violin and viola. Decades later, she told a historian that after playing music, “I started to come alive again, because I had felt that I wasn’t even alive.” Unfortunately, the gossip of homophobic refugees in the camp soured her musical experiences there [PDF].

In 1948, Belinfante immigrated to the United States, trading the dark and icy winter of her past for a fresh start in sunny Laguna Beach, California. A decade after the start of her career as a conductor, she picked it back up again and led the Orange County Philharmonic. But while she had survived extreme discrimination in Europe, sexism took music from her again in 1962: The Philharmonic pushed her out because they felt a male in her place would raise the orchestra's profile.

Despite the professional disappointment, Belinfante lived to see Orange County designate February 19 as “Frieda Belinfante Day” to honor her contributions to the arts. In 1991, she moved to New Mexico, where she spent her final days. She told the Los Angeles Times, “I should be born again. I could have done more.”

She died of cancer at the age of 90 in 1995 at her Santa Fe home.